“Today may be sunny on the beach for tourists; tonight, may be stormy and sleepless for the enslaved fishermen on the ships in the dark ocean,” reads the press release for Private Policy’s spring ’17 collection. Though a majority of NYFWM’s first day felt emotionally empty, rising designer duo—Siying Qu and Haroan Li—thankfully tackled an overlooked injustice for their breakout presentation, using fashion as a vehicle to raise awareness.
After reading an AP article asking, “Are Slaves catching the fish you buy?” Private Policy began researching the Southeast Asian fishing industry and discovered that slave labor is widespread, affecting hundreds today. These fishermen are forced to work on the ocean for sometimes up to 5 total years in fear of punishment or murder—a gruesome reality we rarely consider when grocery shopping for slave-caught seafood in America.
This inspiration took root in the pair’s spring ’17 range, “Trapped at Sea,” featuring looks accessorized with harnesses and chains. Some pieces were made from biohazard plastic and others were printed with illustrations by Sung Jin Lee. His sketches were styled underneath plastic sheets, creating a purposeful feeling of imprisonment. While this season saw Private Policy sparking more provocative dialogue than ever before, they did bring back brand classics, like silk bombers, loungewear and matching pleated trousers.
We talked with the two during their NYFWM debut to learn more:
Bring me through this season’s inspiration.
The whole concept is based on this news article by the Associated Press. In the article, they talk about this horrible situation with fishermen in Southeast Asia, where they’re basically enslaved to fish on ships in the middle of the ocean for free, day and night. If they do not obey, they are punished or even killed in front of others. If they try to escape, it’s hard because they’re in the middle of the ocean and if they get caught, they’re badly punished. We were really moved by the story and wanted to design a collection based off it. Now we can talk to other people about it and hope to raise more awareness.
How did these ideas manifest into clothing?
We wanted the looks to be like warriors, fighting for justice. That’s why we have chains, harnesses, darker colors, makeup with paint on the face, and their hair looks like they’re out with the wind blowing. There are many symbolic meanings, like with the fabrics—the red plastic, which is actually biohazard trash bags used in hospital to put on things that have touched human blood. That’s symbolic of the fish we buy so cheap—that cheap fish is actually a product of human blood. We also did some t-shirts trapped between two pieces of vinyl to reinforce the idea of being trapped at sea.
Illustration by Sung Jin Lee
Currently, there are so many awful things happening in the world that I believe fashion should be responding to. Do you think fashion is an opportunity to spread social messages?
Definitely. People love fashion. People post fashion on Instagram and all over social media. People buy it—they pay money for it. This time we were like, ‘Why don’t we use this as our medium to do more than just make pretty clothes?’ That was our original idea—we didn’t want to just make beautiful fashion, we wanted to make something that meant something—something that’s actually needed. Young people today want to express their ideologies more explicitly, so we want to help people express themselves.
Now that you’ve done a few collections, do you feel you’re honing Private Policy’s look?
It’s getting more mature. A lot of the stuff is based on the East to the West and we really wanted this time to create the classic textile for Private Policy. With this collection, we really emphasized all the details we had before, like the harnesses and our use of color. This collection was almost a discovery of ourselves, our design philosophy, our life philosophy—trying to convey more and have more communication with the audience, with our customers.
Tell me about the black face paint.
It’s to portray the idea that fishermen died with no name. Because of the black paint on face, we cannot tell who they are. This symbolizes how many fishermen died just for cheap fish in supermarkets. They also had no proper burial, no justice for what their murder, no name left for people to remember. We wanted to show the dark horror of the news story.